The Sunday Magazine

The forgotten real-life story behind Lolita

In 1948, an 11-year-old girl named Sally Horner was kidnapped by a convicted rapist who made her pretend to be his daughter. Her ordeal inspired Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel Lolita — but Sally's story has been forgotten, and she died before she had a chance to tell it herself.
Sarah Weinman's book The Real Lolita examines the forgotten life of Sally Horner, the 11-year-old girl whose kidnapping changed the course of 20th-century literature. (Knopf Canada)

Originally published on Sept. 9, 2018.

In 1948, an 11-year-old girl named Sally Horner was kidnapped by a convicted rapist named Frank La Salle.

He held her captive for 21 months. He made her pretend to be his daughter in public, and raped her in private.

Her ordeal was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, which has sold over 50 million copies and was one of the most controversial novels of the 20th century.

But in all the furor over the book, Horner's story has been forgotten.

Canadian author Sarah Weinman's book The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World is an extensively-reported account of Horner's life and captivity. She first wrote about the case in a long-form article for Hazlitt

Weinman told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright she wanted Horner "to essentially be as immortal as Lolita is in literature."

Sally Horner at age nine, two years before she was kidnapped by Frank La Salle. (The Panaro family)

A life-altering dare

In March 1948, Horner walked into a store in Camden, N.J., to steal a notebook on a dare from a girls' club.

"She was a lonely kid," Weinman said. "So long as she completed this initiation ... that would get her into the club."

"It's just that she had the tremendous misfortune to engage in this petty larceny under the watchful eyes of a man named Frank La Salle, who only two months prior had been released from prison after serving a fairly long sentence for the statutory rape of five girls between the ages of about 11 and 14."

This photograph of Sally Horner was discovered at the Atlantic City boarding house where Frank La Salle held her captive, six weeks after her disappearance. (The Panaro family)

La Salle told Horner he was an FBI agent, and unless she agreed to follow his instructions and regularly report back to him, she would be sent to a juvenile reformatory. She believed him.

Horner didn't hear from him for several months, but in June, shortly after she turned 11, La Salle stopped her on her way home from school and convinced her to come with him to Atlantic City, N.J. He made her tell her mother she was going on vacation with a friend.

Weinman said Horner's mother, Ella Horner, "had a really tough, hardscrabble life." Sally's father had killed himself, and she was struggling to support their family.

"Her little girl wanted a vacation … but Ella couldn't afford it, so she let her daughter go off with the stranger," she said.

By the time her mother realized something was wrong and called the police, the young Horner and La Salle had disappeared.

The real Lolita

5 years ago
Duration 0:55
The kidnapping of 11-year-old Sally Horner inspired Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel Lolita, but she died before the novel was published. Sarah Weinman, author of The Real Lolita, says she can't stop thinking about this photograph — and what Sally would have thought about Nabokov's novel.

Captivity and rescue

To evade the police, La Salle moved Horner across the country, stopping in Maryland, Texas and California.

"He was able to convince people and himself that Sally was, as he put it later in court documents, his 'natural born daughter,'" Weinman said. "This was patently not true. But because of the public fiction that he forced her to create, she had to live by this for 21 months."

All the while, La Salle was sexually assaulting Horner behind closed doors.

In California, a neighbour who had suspicions about their relationship invited Horner over while La Salle was away. She coaxed the real story out of the child and let her make a long-distance phone call home.

Sally Horner, age 13, is reunited with her mother Ella Horner at Philadelphia International Airport on March 31, 1950 after her rescue. (The Associated Press)

Horner's family called the FBI, and La Salle was arrested later that day. She was sent home to New Jersey — but her difficulties weren't over.

Even though she had been raped, many of the girls at her school considered her a "slut" because she was no longer a virgin, said Weinman. Horner's mother repeatedly told the press, "Whatever Sally has done, I can forgive her."

At age 15, two years after her rescue, Horner died in a car accident.

The scaffolding for Lolita

Nabokov had been fascinated by the idea of a middle-aged man's sexual obsession with a young girl for many years, and the plot reoccurs in several of his earlier works.

He was struggling with a draft of Lolita when Horner's death made the news. Weinman said she is convinced he used the story as scaffolding for the novel.

"There's a notecard in his archives … where he transcribed this wire story [about Sally's death], and he then incorporated enough details from that alone," she said.

This photograph of Sally Horner was taken in the summer of 1952, shortly before her death. (The Panaro family)

Weinman and other scholars believe Nabokov likely learned of Horner's story two years earlier, when she was rescued.

"It was a sensation. It was covered all across the country," she said.

In Lolita, a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed with a pre-pubescent girl named Dolores Haze, who he calls Lolita. After her mother's death, he takes her on a westward journey across the United States, passing himself off as her father and sexually assaulting her in private. 

Near the end of the novel, Humbert wonders: "Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, fifty-year-old mechanic, did to eleven-year-old Sally Horner?"

Though Nabokov was famously private and never admitted he was inspired by Horner's case, Weinman said there are too many similarities for it to be a coincidence.

"I was looking for connections, but I was still sort of amazed at all the different ways in which real life and fictional narrative intertwined," she said. 

'It's really important for women's voices to be heard'

Weinman told Enright that learning about Horner hasn't changed her admiration for the novel, but she thinks it's important that readers of Lolita know who Horner was.

"I fervently believe that Sally Horner and her story ... matter in terms of all women and all girls who have suffered, who have been abused, who continue to be to suffer, who continue to be abused," she said.

"We have to remember them, and not automatically give credence to men who would erase them, who would override them, who would manipulate and seduce them. And it's really important for women's voices to be heard, especially now." 

When she thinks about Horner now, there's one image that stands out in Weinman's mind. It's a candid shot that was taken after Horner returned home.

A photo of Horner, taken after she returned home from being abducted. (The Panaro family)

"I just feel like there's such life in that photo ... and it felt even more a waste that she didn't have a chance to grow up," said Weinman.

"A number of people told me how bookish Sally was. So in some weird parallel universe, if Lolita had been able to be published [in her lifetime] … would Sally Horner have read it? And what would she have thought of it?

"That's something that I will never stop thinking about."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Where to get help 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, you can contact the organizations listed below, or go to a mental health walk-in clinic in your area. 

Kids Help Phone: 

Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Text: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)

Live Chat counselling at 

Post-Secondary Student Helpline:

Phone: 1-866-925-5454